Islamabad—Shared policies and mutual challenges could make Turkey and Pakistan ideal partners to push for peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, Pakistan’s foreign affairs chief Sartaj Aziz told Turkey’s state news agency in an exclusive interview.
Ahead of an official visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan starting Wednesday, Aziz, who serves as PM adviser on foreign affairs, said the countries shared views on both regional and global issues, including the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.
“Turkey has carried the huge burden of Syrian refugees, similarly Pakistan is hosting 3 million Afghan refugees.
We will continue to hold discussions and cooperate to handle these issues,” Aziz said, pointing out that Turkey had long tried to support a peace process in Afghanistan by with Heart of Asia–Istanbul process, which gathers the heads of Asian governments.
Aziz is one of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s closest advisors and also served as foreign minister during Sharif’s previous stint as prime minister in the late 1990s.
He welcomed Erdogan’s forthcoming visit, saying it would provide the countries another opportunity to discuss regional issues as well as strengthen their own ties in trade, business and defense, noting that a free trade agreement is close to completion.
“We always attach great importance to our relations with Turkey. It is his first visit [to Pakistan] after the failed military coup therefore it has an added importance,” Aziz said, adding that despite the coup attempt he believed “Turkey will emerge stronger in terms of its democratic credentials as well as continuity of the democratic order.”
Aziz said that both Pakistan and Turkey’s moves in the international arena in recent years showed the nature of international relations was changing, with old regional and global alignments being reshuffled.
“The pattern of making blocs is a bit outdated now. The ongoing realignments are broader. China and Russia are together. They are trying to develop Eurasia for connectivity and for more trade and development. This is something which is development-oriented not security-oriented,” he said.
“Pakistan is further strengthening its ties with China, and similarly Turkey is a member of NATO but simultaneously it has good relations with Russia, as the period of last year’s sanctions is over now,” Aziz said, referring to sanctions imposed by Moscow after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet for violating its airspace last year.
Despite other changes in the international arena, Aziz said he did not expect any major changes in the U.S. policy on Afghanistan following Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.
“It is too early to say anything about that because Afghanistan was not mentioned much in his election (campaign) except that the U.S. forces should remain there, however my opinion is that the present policy will continue,” he said.
While the Afghan Peace Council was actively attempting to resume peace talks, Aziz said Pakistan was involved in trying to persuade the Taliban leadership to return to the table, though he did not directly comment on whether there had been direct contact with the militant group’s leadership.
“Some of the Taliban delegations have visited China. The U.S. is also in contact with the Taliban. So, we all are making efforts. But a great deal depends on ground realities. When they realize they cannot make ground on the battlefield, then the negotiations will be more serious,” he said.
Aziz insisted that the common suggestion Islamabad has a degree of influence over Taliban and could persuade them to resume peace talks was untrue.
“Even at the best of times, they didn’t listen to us, whether it was the destruction of Buddha statues in Bamyan (province) or many other issues. We have destroyed the infrastructure of Taliban, including the Afghan Taliban in the ongoing military operation [in Pakistan’s northern tribal belt],” he said.
“But certainly, there are areas where we can help and we will continue our efforts. We have a large number of people and Ulema [religious scholars] who are saying that the concept of jihad does not involve killing of innocent people.”
He said claims Pakistan supports the Taliban were “outdated perceptions” spoiling relations between the neighbors, which have been particularly sour in recent months following border clashes.
He noted that while the Taliban might not be able to overthrow the Afghan government because of the presence of foreign forces, they could still continue the insurgency they have waged in various provinces of the country, which is why the Turkish-sponsored Heart of Asia peace process was so important.
Relations with India have also been at a low recently, with all diplomatic channels for peace talks suspended after India accused Pakistan of involvement in a militant attack on an army base in Indian-held Kashmir that killed 19 soldiers in September. “There are no backdoor channels operating because the backdoor is not a substitute for the front door. It only supplements the front door, when it opens,” said Aziz.
He accused New Delhi of not being serious about holding talks on divided Kashmir and trying to link terrorism with the disputed Himalayan region’s pro-independence movement.
He also accused India of using the attack on the military base as a means of diverting international attention from ongoing political tension in the region, where at least 90 civilians have been shot dead by security forces during protests against Indian rule over the last four months. “Now even the Indian media is saying that this scale of human rights violation in occupied Kashmir is unprecedented…this is a very sad situation but the Kashmir issue has become very much alive,” he said, noting the Turkish stance on Kashmir has been “very consistent and very strong.”